Deuteronomy Seeking Solace in the Face of Ambiguous Loss
Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)
“I, Indeed I am the One Who Comforts You.” (Isaiah 51:12)
It has been months since the onset of the global pandemic, and we are still reeling from the seismic consequences. The psychologist, Paula Boss, in an interview with Krista Tippett, has given us conceptual language to name what we are all going through: “ambiguous loss,” a term she coined to characterize mourning that has no closure.
A person may experience ambiguous loss in grieving for a spouse or parent who suffers from Alzheimer’s over the course of years. Long before the beloved one dies, the person mourns their absence. There is a body but the mind of the one you once knew is just not there. In some cases, there is no body, only a presumed death, as in the case of a soldier missing in action. I think of Jacob grasping his son’s bloodied cloak, and crying out: “this is my son’s . . . a wild beast devoured him; Joseph is torn, torn apart.” (Genesis 37:33) He refused to be comforted (v. 35) for his son “who was not [’einenu]” (42:36)— had gone lost or missing. Years turned into decades of dark grief because there was no corpse to bury, to give closure to his mourning, only an empty pit in Jacob’s heart.
We too, as a collective, are in a state of grieving a loss where there is no closure. Many have experienced real loss—the passing of relatives or friends, buried with few who could attend the funeral, only perhaps a virtual shiva online. Some of us have lost jobs or homes. But for those who have not experienced death, severe illness, or economic hardship, the minor losses are very real and need to be acknowledged and mourned. We are all experiencing our own small calamities. Weddings and graduations have been cancelled, rescheduled, or cut down in size. Grandparents can’t hug their grandkids; others won’t visit their older parents. That loss of touch, of daily intimacies, is palpable.
In my case, I don’t know whether my flight will change at the last minute, or if classes will be cancelled and we’ll suddenly be thrust online again—albeit we are more prepared than last time. I left for Israel at the end of March, and my husband applied to renew his passport that same day, hoping to join me later. That passport has yet to arrive in the mail. It has been over four months since I have felt his touch or tasted his fabulous homemade pizza, though we talk every day. I am anxious, even insomniacal. I try to channel my anxiety by reorganizing and labelling all my spice jars, and scrubbing the bottom of drawers that have not seen light in decades. It helps somewhat to name it: I am mourning an “ambiguous loss”—a loss of control, of certainty about what our lives will look like next week, next month, even next year.
Where do I turn for comfort (besides organizing spice jars and messy drawers)? What offers us, in the words of theologian Ellen Davis, “a tenacious but severely chastened hope”? The prophet Isaiah in this week’s Haftarah speaks to me: “I, indeed I am the One who comforts you [’Anokhi ’anokhi h’u menaḥemkhem] . . . .” (Isaiah 51:12) God is introduced by a double ’anokhi, “I, indeed I,” echoing the opening word of the Decalogue, “I [’anokhi] am the LORD, Your God, who brought you out of Egypt . . . .” (Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 5:6) The reiteration of the ’anokhi emphatically asserts that God will be the source of comfort, in one breath shifting from first to third person, from “I” to “the One who comforts you [h’u menaḥemkhem].” Perhaps, the prophet is answering the refrain we repeatedly heard in Lamentations, “There is no one to comfort her [’ein lah menaḥem] . . . .”? (Fair Zion, the personification of Jerusalem, Lamentations 1:2, 9, 17, 21)
We need God’s comfort more now than ever because our anxiety is polymorphous and diverse, as the curses in Deuteronomy warned us:
And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and shall have no assurance of your life. In the morning you’ll say: “If only it were evening!” And in the evening, you’ll say: “If only it were morning!”—because of the dread that your heart shall feel and the sights that your eyes shall see. (28:66-67)
There is my insomnia, made explicit in the Torah! Anxiety and fear arise in anticipation of another bout of hard times, of strictures to come. But the fear also stems from past trauma, even when the objective cause has dissipated. What suture can be found for this wound with no cut?
The words of Isaiah speak to our collective anxiety; the prophet reassures: “behold, here I am (hinneni).” (52:6) I am holding you, I am present for you. Here is the touch of which you have been bereft for so long, and like a long lost lullaby God’s words break through:
For not in panic-haste [be-ḥipazon] shall you come out, nor in flight shall you go. For the Lord goes before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard [me’asifkhem, lit. gathering you up]. (Isaiah 52:12)
What holds us is the bracket, the frame, the sense that God flanks us, leading ahead but also ushering from behind, gathering us up as a collective [me’asifkhem]. This redemption will not be in panic-haste, be-ḥipazon, as it was in Egypt (Deut. 16:3), but in a slow gradual transformation. I think of the way the strictures brought on by the pandemic must be cautiously lifted, with a keen sense of collective conscience and care. Then we will once again sit together on a park bench as old friends, flanked by an arm rest, a newspaper and coffee cup. In the meantime, we offer each other solace in small acts of kindness: a plate of cookies on the neighbor’s door step. We pose the question—“How are you doing now, really?”—and listen attentively with compassion to the answer. For, ultimately, we are the lens for God’s face in this world and must aspire to become the anokhi in the prophetic phrase: “I, indeed I am the One who comforts you” (Isaiah 51:12).
Rachel Adelman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the rabbinical program at Hebrew College. She received her PhD from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.